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processing paradoxes

fiona mcgregor: samuel james, ms & mr, artspace

Fiona McGregor will be showing a seven-hour performance video, Vertigo, at MOP Gallery in Sydney in February, as well as several live and video works from her Water series at Artspace later in 2011. Her most recent book is the novel Indelible Ink.

Modes of Misunderstanding, 2010, video still, Samuel James Modes of Misunderstanding, 2010, video still, Samuel James
image courtesy the artists
IT IS AXIOMATIC THAT ARTWORKS VIEWED BY CRITICS UNDERGO CERTAIN TRANSMUTATIONS IN THEIR RECALL. IN THAT SENSE WE ARE NEVER REVIEWING ART, ONLY OUR MEMORIES OF ART. THEIR TRANSMUTATIONS WILL BE SHOT THROUGH WITH OUR OWN IDIOSYNCRATIC EXPERIENCES, KNOWLEDGE, OBSESSIONS AND DESIRES. BUT BEYOND NEURO-CHEMISTRY, BEYOND SUBJECTIVITY, THERE IS A KIND OF INTEGRITY WHICH MUST GO BACK TO THE WORK ITSELF. MOST SIMPLY, WE CAN SAY, I TRUST THIS. OR NOT.

In Samuel James’ Modes of Misunderstanding I & II, two large projections on the wall alternate between a farmer striding across a dry paddock towards the camera and a group of performers staggering through the bush in a state of amused disorientation. The farmer, initially a distant dot on a vast expanse of cracked earth, approaching with the inevitability of weather, recalls tropes as various as Bill Viola’s shimmering quasi-Biblical figures and Australian news reports of drought. It’s such a familiar image, in fact, that I disregard it at first. The bush, a section of coastal dune forest at Bundeena, is lush and intimate, the trees perhaps small paperbarks. While one performer touches a tree inquisitively, another falls about laughing. They are lost, but they’re having fun. Beside these, doubled as well— reflection upon reflection—are small videos filmed on rock shelves across which the comedy of the lost souls trails also. With the faintest reproductive interference, the place resembles a lunar landscape.

Belgian choreographer Hans van den Broeck, who directed these group performances, wanted to do a piece that showed these people relating to the landscape. James’ take is that as middle-class whites who live in the city, the notion of them having a connection to the bush is risible: indeed, van den Broeck’s wish can seem like a typical naïve foreigner’s bucolic fantasy about Australia. In this sense the farmer and his arid paddock are endgame. But James’ wit and ingenuity offer a more open view, in spite of himself: there is a connection of sorts taking place here: fumbling, uncertain, insistent. In whatever fashion, these people are a part of this place.

In the next room is Amygdala: Fear Conditioning, the centrepiece in a way, conceptually if nothing else, because the amygdala is the structure in our brain that processes emotion and anxiety, and it is the expression of this process that underpins all James’ work here. Fear also is noted as the driving force behind the performances. Some of us will remember the originals from which archival footage was reanimated and projected onto screens of different sizes suspended throughout the room. Often the performers are completely disembodied: Brian Fuata’s face stares out from a tree trunk; Julie Vulcan’s from somewhere else. A face in a cow, opening, closing, who is it? Martin del Amo’s body judders in freeze frame, then continues its spiralling leap, and I remember Under Attack (not the live performance: a video of). Sometimes the soundtrack synchs perfectly with the images, as in a vignette of Rosie Dennis, which imparts a strong sense of claustrophobia. Here, as elsewhere, as deconstructed as the footage is, it retains the spirit of the performance. Indeed, the strength of these video works as a whole is the maintenance of their connection to their primary human resource: all technical wizardry is in service to this.

808.838/grandfather paradox, Ms&Mr 808.838/grandfather paradox, Ms&Mr
image courtesy the artists
The same can be said of Ms & Mr’s 808.838 / grandfather paradox, where the dialogue between this collaborative couple binds the work with warmth and humour. The title relates to time travel, wherein the conundrum of going back in time to delete a life or an event, thereby changing your own present so that you cannot do this, remains unsolvable.

Mr’s late grandfather shimmers on a screen facing the entrance. Bearded and naked from the waist up, in advanced middle age, he seems to be standing in water. The image is static, but alive. In diptych is a baby’s face—Mr—in close up, looking towards the grandfather. This old super 8 footage is played with: eyedrops are administered to the baby, whose expression hovers between fear and wonder. And Mr, the artist as he is now, leans down over his grandfather, and pumping his chest, attempts to resuscitate him.

Other elements balance the installation: a rocket shaped screen and one in the shape of a baby in a nappy, on which are projected a litany of images endless and chaotic. From the ceiling hangs a long copper cable—or is it a placenta?—that droops down into a thick coil on the ground. The world, a blank white globe, also receives projections. The space as a whole, as in James’ Amygdala, is used to its full potential in showing how these elements play off one another. Grandfather paradox is an eerie, mesmerising work, deeply personal, with the amniotically ambivalent feel of being trapped, or held, in time/technology/space, or simply in relation to another.

My only qualm was that James’ Amygdala was installed in such a way that did not invite the audience right in. Hovering at the doorway gave one a good, but limited view. On opening night, however, we stepped right inside the work, encouraged no doubt by the size of the crowd pressing into the room. (“Notice how much more fun opening night is”, someone remarked to me, “when it’s full of performance artists?”) The installation from the inside was enriched, apposite: silhouettes of punters’ heads animated some screens. The projections, changing as you walked through them, refracted yet again (perhaps due to the layout of the room, and unavoidable).

Unfortunately I am reviewing this show after it has closed, so if you didn’t go you won’t get to see it. All you will have to go by is the divergent memories of those who did see it. Trust me, Amygdala—Fear Conditioning, Modes of Misunderstanding I & II, and 808.838 / grandfather paradox added up to one of the richest, most stimulating experiences I have had at Artspace in years.


Samuel James, Amygdala—Fear Conditioning, Modes of Misunderstanding I & II; Ms & Mr, 808.838 / grandfather paradox; Artspace, Sydney, Aug 13-Sept 10

Fiona McGregor will be showing a seven-hour performance video, Vertigo, at MOP Gallery in Sydney in February, as well as several live and video works from her Water series at Artspace later in 2011. Her most recent book is the novel Indelible Ink.

RealTime issue #99 Oct-Nov 2010 pg. 54

© Fiona McGregor; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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